Friday, 9 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

JE NE SUIS PAS CHARLIE. Without in any way wanting to mitigate the horror, grief and shock of the murders in Paris, I am growing weary of the disingenuity of so many in the media disclaiming the potentially violent power of the pen and the image. Public intellectuals are queuing up to  present themselves as the peaceful advocates of freedom of speech, bravely defending western values of tolerance, respect and democracy against Islamist extremists - which often seems to include all Muslims who haven't publicly and repeatedly denounced their co-religionists. (See, for example, Ian McEwan and David Aaronovitch on Newsnight last night).

The use of violence by rational, cold-blooded, educated people always begins with the pen - with an idea, with a book, with an image. Look at images of Jews in 1930s German cartoons. Look at those crude, provocative images of Muhammad and ask yourself if our 'free' societies would tolerate such images if they were anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic or more overtly racist than they already are. Ask a French Muslim woman who would choose to wear the niqab if she could what she thinks of freedom of expression.

Writers write because they know the power of the pen. I wonder what has happened to our understanding of freedom when the power to provoke, to offend and yes, to knowingly and willfully arouse murderous rage simply through insult and provocation has become the ultimate expression of freedom. Isn't freedom more complex and dignified  than that? If one is going to die for freedom, are there not better ways of expressing what freedom is than the freedom to ridicule, mock and belittle?

David Aaronovitch said on Newsnight last night, "we want as much free speech as we can possibly get". May I suggest that he starts by offering to satirise red poppies on the BBC next November, and see how far he gets? Consider this report in The Guardian, about a Muslim who was fined £50 for burning a poppy during a protest because, said the judge,
The two-minute chanting, when others were observing a silence, followed by a burning of the symbol of remembrance was a calculated and deliberate insult to the dead and those who mourn or remember them. 
The limits of toleration are narrow and the right to insult is seriously curtailed when it comes to abusing the dominant culture's sacred symbols. The dichotomous representation of tolerant secularism versus intolerant religion blinds us to the deeply rooted intolerance and growing limitations on freedom of speech in our own societies, for in truth, this mantra is invoked most frequently with regard to the right to offend religious people - usually Muslims.

The violent killing of one human being by another is always a profound and incurable wound to our humanity, for no person is an island. But that is true of every child, woman and man butchered in the name of a cause - any cause. Until we join the dots and acknowledge the complexity of this spiraling conflict, there will be no end to the violence and the killing of innocents by and on all sides in the name of their gods - God, Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, France, Britain, America, Freedom of Speech. When an idea demands blood sacrifice, it is an idol. When it enables us to reach out to one another and ask 'who art thou?', it is a god worthy of worship.

I mourn the deaths of those defiantly brave journalists, and I mourn the further wounding of our increasingly fragile and threatened democratic freedoms. But the greatest threats to those freedoms are not a small minority of religious conservatives (and not all offended conservatives are violent extremists). The enemy which most threatens the future of our values and institutions and indeed of our very planet is a ruthless political and economic system undergirded by western militarism and the powerful corporate interests of the arms trade. Long before radical Islamism conquers the world, we will be drowning in the suffocating fog of our own polluted environment, victims of a ruthless and inhumane secularist ideology colonised by the politics of greed and exploitation. Let our intellectuals, artists and comedians satirise the real enemies of freedom, so that we might become societies that reasonable people of all religions and none might agree are worth living in - and maybe even dying to preserve.


  1. What a load of old tripe....and totally inappropriate to be published so soon after such a despicable act

  2. For those who believe this article to be inappropriate, I would say they haven't really "heard" it. I would counter with the idea that this is exactly the right time for moderate voices to speak up.

  3. [Name and address supplied]
    Permission please to duplicate this item for distribution at an Interfaith meeting debating "The Role of Society in the Promotion of World Peace" next week.

    Vicious, mocking cartoons provoke violence. They did in Nazi Germany when they were used as a propaganda weapon and they do today.
    In religion they are in evidence from the earliest times - the "Alexamenos worships [his] God" picture and graffito on Palatine Hill in Rome still arouses resentment in the viewer.

    They are the lowest form of "freedom of speech" and their glorification of late is deeply regrettable and to be resisted.


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